Updated July 2020
River Jude Phoenix was born on August 23, 1970, in Madras, Oregon; His name inspired by ‘the river of life’ in Hermann Hesse’s book Siddhartha. His parents, John Lee Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz, both following a lifestyle born of the 1960s hippy movement as they worked as farm labours; their roots never tied to any one place for too long.
By 1972, with River aged two, the Bottoms had joined the notorious cult of ‘The Children of God’. A religious movement grounded in indoctrination, evangelical belief and practices of ‘free love’, now known to have included child abuse. It was during this time that River became a big brother to Rain. Followed soon after by his first and only brother Joaquin and two more sisters Liberty and Summer. During their time with the cult, the family lived in Texas, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Consequently leading River to busk with his younger siblings on street corners, while attempting to spread the word of the cult.
The exact details of River’s experiences of the cult as a young pre-teen boy are clouded in soundbites and hear-say. However, River did make guarded comments in interviews relating to the possible sexual abuse he may have suffered.
Fame comes knocking
By 1978 the family had fled the destructive cult and returned to the United States in poverty. As a result living in Florida with Arlyn’s mother in a cramped house, barely suitable for a family with five children. It was during this time that River’s talent for music and performing began to shine through. Where he consequently took part in local talent competitions and small TV commercials. His magnetic ability to hold the screen only increasing with each role he took. The result of which was more offers of substantial parts. With the whole family ultimately moving to California to secure the potential income from River’s talent.
And it wasn’t long before their move began to bear fruit. With River’s first film coming shortly after, playing alongside fellow teen star Ethan Hawke in ‘The Explorers’ (1985). However, despite high production values Explorers never quite took off at the box office; up against the might of ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘Live Aid’ on its release.
Despite the disappointing launch of Explorers, the movie opened the door to further roles. With ‘Stand by Me’ and ‘Mosquito Coast’ (1986) cementing River as one of the brightest young talents in Hollywood. His career now firmly established; his gentle, deep thinking image subverting the typical teen idol image.
The loss of a unique talent
River sat at the head of a new wave of young Hollywood leading men. Including the young talents of Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Leonardo Di Caprio. However, it was River’s who shone brighter than many of his talented contemporaries. His beliefs on animal welfare, veganism, equality and the environment challenging the archetypal themes of Hollywood masculinity. While his natural style of performance helped him inhabit the roles he played, leading to character portrayals of real depth and clarity.
River Phoenix tragically died aged 23 on October 31, 1993, outside the Viper Club in L.A. His younger brother Joaquin, sister Rain, and girlfriend Samantha Mathis at his side. His young body failing through a mixture of prescription drugs, cocaine and morphine. The shockwave that followed equalling the loss of James Dean as Hollywood mourned a star who shone with such intensity. While the global outpouring of grief that followed played testament to the talent, sincerity and beauty of River, his fanbase never letting go of his role in redefining Hollywood leading men.
River left behind an enviable body of work comprising of 24 films and television appearances. His work still finding new audiences today, while Joaquin continues to carry the torch of the families talent. River Phoenix changed Hollywood, and more importantly the role of men on screen, in a similar way to Montgomery Clift and James Dean. His legacy and talent burnt into the fabric of modern cinema, his performances still some the finest in cinema history.
So join us as we explore the finest examples of River’s on-screen work; movies that shine with River’s talent and ensure his legacy lives on.
Joe Dante’s 1985 space adventure never managed to rise to the top of the cinema charts. Launched in a week that saw Back to the Future reign supreme and Live Aid capture TV audiences. However, since its original release Explorers has continued to gain a cult following. Its mixture of children’s Sci-Fi and offbeat comedy entrancing new generations of film fans.
River was cast as the nerdy Wolfgang Muller, forever conducting experiments in his dad’s workshop. While Ethan Hawke was cast as the regular hero kid of the picture. Early in production, it was clear to both the cast and director that River was different from most other child actors. His passion for embodying his character almost excessive. While his lack of any formal education challenged, but also pushed him to achieve on set; driving River to achieve success, as he strove to improve possibly his families financial position.
Explorers mixture of pop culture and science fiction may have flopped, but its warm and humour driven script is still a joy to watch; River cleary learning his craft in a film that glows with the offbeat humour. Watching Explorers today is a beautiful trip back into the innocence of 1980s cinema. In a movie that captures the changing dynamics of family, society and culture while providing a genuinely different science fiction journey.
Stand by Me (1986)
Based on the Stephen King novella ‘The Body’ Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me is one of the greatest ‘coming of age’ films ever produced. A love letter to simpler times, childhood freedom and the role of friendship in early adolescence. Stand by Me dovetails 1950’s nostalgia with a layered exploration of family, friendship, bereavement and belonging that still feels timeless and fresh.
River turned 15 on the set of Stand by Me; his journey to adulthood echoing the hormonal displacement of his character. However, unlike many of the other boys on set, River used his own experience of puberty to define his role; his character ‘Chris Chambers’ a sensitive yet scared leader. A tough guy, internally struggling with identity and purpose. Here River dovetailed Chris with his own lived experience of sitting outside of mainstream society. His vulnerability and emotion resembling a young James Dean.
However, there was also a darker side to River’s Stand by Me experience. His exposure to a world of teenage possibilities, leading to experimentation and emotional release. His closeted life of family opened up like never before.
Stand by Me is at times a celebration of childhood in all its boundless imagination and wonder, while also mourning of the transition to a darker adult world. Reiner’s direction alongside a stunning young cast is delicate, energetic, touching, and melancholic. Reminding us all of the conflicts between dreams and reality as we take our first tentative steps into adult life. The excitement interlocked with a need for comfort, understanding and protection as the child and teenager collide.
Stand by Me is the final summer of childhood innocence for boys on the verge of adolescence. And in turn the last days of River’s childhood. The emotion of his past and present colliding on screen for all to see. With a performance that still sends a tingle down the spine in its realism and emotional intelligence.
The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Peter Weirs 1986 Mosquito Coast placed the young River alongside the on-screen royalty of Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren. Adapting the Paul Theroux novel into an onscreen journey of fanaticism, love and fear. Ford’s ‘Allie Fox‘ dragging his family across South America in search of a dream that never truly exists. His colonial and campaigning views clashing with his son (Phoenix). Who while desperately trying to support his father, slowly becomes more and more distant to the opinions he holds.
River was not the first choice for the role of ‘Charlie’, with director Peter Weir set on Wil Wheaton. However, when Weir discovered River’s past living in Latin America and his family history of travelling. The parallels between character and actor were too good to be true. With River being able to use his lived experience to embody Charlie Fox. The resulting performance matching the powerhouse delivery of Ford and Mirren.
Running on Empty (1988)
The Popes have been living a secret life since the 1960s. Their children – especially the oldest ‘Danny’ (Phoenix), who has never known anything different. His life a rollercoaster of perpetual turmoil; where stability is never guaranteed in either school or home life. The actions of his parents during the 60s still haunting every moment. However as he grows, and his talent for music shines through. Family division and future opportunity clash with a need for growth and change.
Once again, River found himself cast in a picture that ultimately led to comparisons with his own life. The need to break free from parental control, coupled with a longing for the comfort and safety of family at any cost. However, it was within his delicate, intelligent and precise portrayal of Danny that River showed his adult acting ability. Shaking off the cocoon of teenage life and emerging as Oscar contender. Director Sydney Lumet allowing River to spread his wings after two distinctly average films with ‘Jimmy Reardon‘ and ‘Little Nikita‘. Both of which could have forever stereotyped Phoenix as a simple teen sex idol.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
I can hear the comments as a type this section. They range from; ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade wasn’t a River Phoenix film’. Through to ‘River was only in the first 20 minutes of the action’. Well, I beg to differ with the first of these statements. And while accepting the second, offer the following thoughts.
River Phoenix not only gave us the perfect young Indiana Jones but managed in the space of 20 minutes to make the character his own. His character study layered with tidbits of Harrison Ford’s performance, while in turn oozing a youthful energy and wide-eyed wonder only River could excude. So while his role may have short, it is River Phoenix who single-handedly launches the third Indiana Jones instalment. The only pity is, we never got to see more of him as the whip-cracking young scout.
On release Dogfight found itself labelled as a romantic movie. However, its themes run so much deeper than pure romance. The year is 1963, and Eddie Birdlace (Phoenix) is enjoying a final night in San Francisco before being shipped to Vietnam. His marine buddies playing a game of ‘dogfight’ otherwise known ‘who can pick up the ugliest girl in town’. However, things quickly progress from game to real sexual attraction between River’s unconfident and immature ‘Birdlace’ and Lili Taylor’s Rose.
River embodies the character of a young marine while also delivering a performance full of complexity. Within a role that could have quickly become a stereotypical hormonal young marine. However, in the hands of Phoenix, we get a masterclass in nuance. The immaturity of Birdlace matched by the fear of the unknown as the innocent boy hides within the body of a man. Phoenix’s Birdlace isn’t sure of himself, his role, or the mission he is about to embark on. With Rose offering a safety blanket and security. Birdlace learning that love and attraction are based on more than pure image.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
You may think that a film based on male prostitution would focus on sex. But Gus Van Sant’s 1991 picture does not wrap itself in stereotypical themes of prostitution and sexuality. My Own Private Idaho plays with Shakespeare’s Henry IV part I and II. While placing its central characters into the urban bustle and rural beauty of Portland, Oregon. Dovetailing the freedom of wide-open landscapes with a suffocating yet intoxicating cityscape. Scott (Keanu Reeves) and Mike (River Phoenix) care for each other, sharing their hopes and dreams in a nuanced mesh of male love and unrequited longing.
For both River and Keanu, ‘Idaho’ was a considerable risk. After all, this was a film centred around themes still taboo in early 90s America. Both men subverting their teen idol status in exploring street hustlers and sexuality. But for River, this was also an opportunity to fully immerse himself in a character he could build. A character that could be shaped with a Director open to his creativity.
This urge to build the character of Mike led River to spend nights on Portlands city streets. Talking with rent boys while momentarily living their life and dabbling in their work. His mission to ensure his character accurately gave voice to men and boys without one. The end result is one of the finest onscreen performances ever committed to celluloid. An Oscar-worthy lead performance that was simply too risky for Hollywood attention.
Idaho takes us on an unforgettable journey into love amid hurt, companionship and a dream-like need for belonging and safety. Creating not only one of the most beautiful LGBTQ films of the past 30 years. But also a film that fully shows the divine talent of a young acting legend.